Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls – Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

Sometimes I forget that I’ve tried sweet-talking a publisher into letting me have a book to review until the book turns up. Maybe its my age but I keep running out of space in my head to keep all the things I’m meant to remember – sometimes this is a bad thing (when I get home and realise I didn’t remember to get any milk) but when books I was quite excited to hear about show up unexpectedly then it is definitely a Good Thing…

9780141986005The Good Thing that turned up today was a book which came out of a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign – a collection of beautifully illustrated short biographies of inspirational women. It is aimed at young girls, from 5 or 6 upwards, but I could see it being a useful resource for older children looking for information for history projects (I am going to be googling so many  of the women and girls whose stories are outlined here) and it would be good reading for boys too. The women/girls in this book are queens, warriors, scientists, mathematicians, athletes, artists and politicians. I loved the fact that while girls are being encouraged to push into male dominated fields credit is also given to girls in more traditionally ‘girly’ roles – singers, models and ballerinas for example. The message really is that girls can do, and be, whatever they want. There is plenty of diversity too – the girls seem to be from every continent, every ethnicity and there are girls who don’t let disability stand in their way. They have been giving the patriarchy a run for its money for 2,000 years – if our current generation of girls read this book then we should be able to continue to build on their work. Some of the stories told in these pages bought a tear to my eyes but they all made me proud to be female.



The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir -Jennifer Ryan

As the years go by we lose generations of first hand experience. Despite the fact that we are busily commemorating the centenaries of various WWI battles there are now no veterans of that conflict left alive. Even those who remember that era from their childhoods are now centenarians (at least) so much of how we relate emotionally to that time comes from fiction and poetry. And many of the novels, in particular, are being written long after the fact, by authors who are having to use imagination, writing flair and vast amounts of research to bring those days to life. What becomes almost more shocking is the realisation that the number of World War II veterans is also depleting rapidly. I was born only twenty years after the end of hostilities – this is only the generation before me – and yet survivors are dying at the rate of over 500 per day. Most are over 90 so, if novelists are thinking of writing about the 1939-45 period using the first hand experiences of those who lived through it they’d better get a wriggle on. Or, possibly, like Chris Cleave did for Everyone Brave is Forgiven, recall all those talks they had with parents and grandparents.

chilburyJennifer Ryan has used the experience  and reminiscences of her grandmother (and the fascinating Mass Observation project started in 1939) to write her take on this period. On the face of it The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is the story of how a choir, during the war when most of the men are called up to fight, learns to cope with just women’s voices but, of course it is about much more than that. As we learn about each of the key characters, a widow who is afraid of everything but mostly of losing her son to the war, a young woman who discovers there is something more important than being loved, a girl in a hurry to grow up but with no idea of what this really means and a refugee girl who just needs her family, we realise that while men are fighting the war it is the women who will make sure there is something worth fighting for. Each story, told through letters and journal entries, helps to develop the whole and each character has an individual voice.

This isn’t just a feel-good story about women pulling together in wartime. This does happen in the end, but there are also some very difficult subjects covered: abusive husbands and fathers, illegal abortion, blackmail, treason and loss.  These are covered in unflinching detail but with great humanity – I was nearly in tears at more than one point because it really felt as if these events were happening to people I knew. Despite the traumatic events in the book I finished it feeling uplifted and positive. Not least because I knew that the lives of women, among others, would start to be changed for the better in the years that followed.


Take Courage:Anne Brontë and the Art of Life – Samantha Ellis

Anyone with siblings will know that each child is often assigned a characteristic within the family (in our family we even had little poems for each of us which I won’t repeat since my sister is not hairy and my brother is by no means bandy – I do, however, have a laugh like a drain). Famous families are no exception – like an episode of Friends we tend to think of the Brontës in terms of the rebellious, passionate one (Emily), the one who spoke out for the underdog (Charlotte), the one with the life tragically cut short (poor old Branwell) and, well, the other one. Anne seems to be the sibling who is relegated to being ‘the pretty one’…Now there’s nothing wrong with being pretty but it seems rather damning with faint praise if you are a Brontë. Seeing Samantha Ellis’s new book about Anne shortly after seeing Sally Wainwright’s thought-provoking To Walk Invisible over the Christmas period I was eager to read about the most invisible of the three sisters.

29779226This book was interesting because it was as much about Samantha Ellis as it is about Anne Brontë in some parts. Ellis, at the start of the book, is a single(ish) fan of Wuthering Heights who thinks Anne is a bit, well, boring. After seeing Anne’s last letter, full of a desire to do more in the future despite her failing health, she realises that maybe the view we have of her (largely from Mrs Gaskell’s rather fawning biography of Charlotte) could be flawed. Each chapter looks at Anne through her relationship with other members of the Brontë household, through her own writing and through Ellis’s growing respect for her as both a writer and a woman. She is shown to be courageous, loyal and a gifted writer – in many ways showing the qualities her sisters are famed for. Agnes Grey showed the reality of the life of a lowly governess before Jane Eyre (although the vagaries of publishing meant that it looked like Charlotte’s novel was written first) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was as groundbreaking as Wuthering Heights in its portrayal of a woman who leaves an abusive husband. And this at a time when women were generally considered the property of man…

As well as being a fascinating insight into the life of an underestimated author this book is also an incitement to reinvestigate Anne’s work. It seems the very least that posterity owes her…


Felix the Railway Cat – Kate Moore

I’m quite fond of cats. In general. Of course, some days I’m not so fond of my actual cat – there are a number of litter tray and spraying incidents which I’d like taking into consideration at this point – but, on the whole, I’m happy to be a cat person. (Which is not to say I’m anti-dog – I’m quite fond of them too but I know we won’t ever actually have our own). I mean, I don’t have a house full of plates with kittens on or spend all my spare time watching cat videos on Facebook but yes, I quite like cats. And I really love living in Yorkshire – the weather may be a bit wilder than back home in Essex, but there are big hills, glorious countryside, fine breweries, yorkshire puddings everywhere and such wonderful people. Why wouldn’t I love it here? Most of my family are still living in the south so I still get to visit (and see the people I love) but I’m not sure I could live there myself anymore. The reason I mention all this is that, here in Yorkshire, we have a very famous cat…*

Huddersfield is a town in West Yorkshire (allegedly the best of all the Ridings of Yorkshire…) with many claims to fame. It was the birthplace of rugby league (the northern version of the game, less posh than the union version played in the Six Nations), Harold Wilson and James Mason. At the time of writing Huddersfield Town FC is doing jolly well in the F.A.Cup, possibly helped by the long-term support of local boy made good Patrick Stewart. Oh, and it has a rather good bookshop. But, although the town’s Wikipedia entry mentions its fine railway station facade (admired by Pevsner and Betjeman), there is one glaring omission – where is the railway cat? For the full story you’ll need to turn instead to Kate Moore’s lovingly written biography…

felixIf you are more into literary biographies or the lives of great historical figures then this book may be a bit of a change for you. I was initially a little put off by the slightly intrusive descriptions of all the human characters involved but, to be honest, this is mostly a book about Felix and the cat descriptions are all pretty spot on. This is not to say that the people are not important to the book – the main message is that Felix is an important part of the team at Huddersfield station and that, in a good team, everyone has a role to play and everyone is valued. The story follows the initial slightly madcap idea to get a station cat, through to Felix’s early days on the platform (including the slightly awkward moment, post-naming, when the vet confirms that Felix is not a male cat but is, in fact, a queen), her attempts to thwart the local crow population and on to social media stardom. It is a cheering book to read (unlike most internet stars not a whiff of scandal has been attached to our feline heroine’s name) although it was not without its sadder moments. And, as those of us who have cats know, there are plenty of amusing incidents and heart-in-the-mouth moments to report too.

Now, excuse me. I think I need to plan a little jaunt over to Huddersfield on my next day off. By train, of course…


*Nearly as famous as Buxton the Blue Cat who is, presumably, from Derbyshire…


The House at Bishopsgate – Katie Hickman

I seem to have a fairly bad habit (developed at the point where I moved into general bookselling from a campus store and really started to ramp up my reading for reviewing) of reading the first book in a series and then never managing to find time to read on. I have managed to finish a few – the Wool trilogy for example or David Barnett’s Gideon Smith books – and there are some authors (like Connie Willis or Gavin Extence) I will always look out for but, sadly, my favourite hashtag seems to be #somanybookssolittletime… This is not to say that when I read the first book in a series I don’t enjoy them, that they are not good books, it’s just that I run out of time. And then, sometimes, I discover that I’ve read a book which is part way through a series and I realise that it may not even make a difference. In fact, it was only after I read the House at Bishopsgate that I realised that there were two books-worth of story leading up to the start of this one. The good news is that this book made perfect sense as a standalone novel. Backstories were sufficiently well covered that there were no blank spots (and there weren’t great swathes of ‘explanation’ at the expense of plot either) and all the characters seemed well-rounded.

9781408821145The House at Bishopsgate belongs to wealthy merchant Paul Pindar and it has sat empty for years while Paul and his wife Celia live in Oriental splendour in 17th century Aleppo where he is a representative of a powerful trading company. But now they have returned to introduce Celia to London society in the reign of James 1st but that society, as is so often the way, is more interested in gossip about Celia’s past (she spent years in the harem of a sultan) and Paul’s prized jewel – a huge diamond known as the Sultan’s Blue. But, somehow, they can’t seem to shake off Lady Sydenham, a young widow they escorted home from Antwerp, and who is now settled into their home with them. Add in a secondary plotline about an ex-nun, a missing servant of Paul’s and his rather unsavoury brother Ralph and there is plenty there for any fan of historical fiction. I was reminded of early Philippa Gregory (Wideacre/Earthly Joys era stuff) which can only be a good thing. I was, to be honest, pretty much raised on Jean Plaidy so reckon I know a good historical yarn when I see one. And this one isn’t bad at all.



The Breakdown – B A Paris

For some people the worst thing you can say about a film, a book or any other piece of creative work is that it is predictable. And in many ways I agree – why give an hour (or two, or fifteen) to an album, movie or novel which doesn’t add anything to the sum total of my experience? But….Sometimes I know how a plotline is going to end (honestly, I can read the mind of the Eastenders scriptwriting team) but still have enough invested in the characters to want to know how they will react to it. In fact we can all sometimes surprise ourselves with how we react to an event we’d known was coming for years – the wedding we’d dreamed of and planned for months, or maybe the eventual death of someone who’d been ill for decades: we can still feel the emotional impact of the shock even when it isn’t exactly a surprise. So, does this always matter when reading a novel (remembering that there are, apparently, only seven plots – or three if you ask Rosencrantz and Guildenstern)?

31450633In The Breakdown, B A Paris’ second novel, Cass decides to ignore her husband’s advice and drive home along a lonely, woodland road. She sees a car broken down, in appalling weather conditions, and stops to see if the female driver needs help. When they don’t react to her stopping she drives on but is shocked to discover, the next day, that not only did she know the driver but that she had been found dead in her car. She feels she can’t share the guilt she feels with her husband – he’ll be angry that she drove along such a dangerous road – but worse than the guilt is the feeling that she is losing her mind. Her mother died after suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s – is Cass starting to show signs of the same awful fate?

There is plenty of threat and fear for Cass – at first that she will become ill and a burden on her husband but later she is plagued by silent phone calls and feels physically threatened. She feels isolated, her husband blames call-centres and she never told him about her Mum’s illness because he might not want a woman with such potentially bad genes, and even her best friend isn’t there for her. As a reader you can see nothing more positive than heavy-duty meds in her future but, gradually, she starts to realise that all the things happening to her just don’t make sense. When she finally takes back control of her life she brings the story to a pretty satisfying conclusion.

My problems with this book are that a) I worked out who Cass’s main tormenters were fairly early on and b) Cass was a bit of a doormat. Which isn’t fair on her – she had been a carer for her mother for a long time and had watched her deteriorate. They had, apparently, had money problems (happily resolved after her mother’s death) and Cass had needed to quit her job to care for her mum full-time. All these things could have affected Cass’s sense of self-worth and that is how she is written – maybe my real issue is that, when she starts to assert herself in the last part of the story, I’m not clear what changes to give her this new burst of confidence. Maybe anger when she realises how she has been betrayed? I did still enjoy the book – the plot was quite convoluted and twisty so I was interested to see how it would unravel. In the end Cass explained it all in the monologue form of that bit at the end of a detective tv show where all the suspects are gathered in one room and the killer is revealed. And, to be fair, I’m a sucker for that kind of thing…


Playing catch-up…

I mentioned on my last post the rather ketchup-y nature of publishing – I’m sure I shook the bottle hard but books are still coming out in big blobs: all while I was planning for Harry Potter Book Night at work. The only way to ketch-up with myself (with no apologies for the awful pun) in to do a bit of a round-up of my recent reading.  I usually do multi-book posts in themed way but I can’t think of a theme that will cover a YA novel about a middle sister trying to work out who she really is, a mystery set in mid-60s London and a book by an award-winning Turkish author about a woman’s relationship to God. Could we just go with eclectic?

All About Mia – Lisa Williamson

32615725Williamson’s first book, The Art of Being Normal, was (quite rightly imho) chosen as the winner in its category in the 2016 Waterstones Children’s book award*. This book, on first glance, doesn’t cover as contentious a subject as gender identity but it does still look at how a young person works out who they really are. Mia is the middle daughter: her older sister Grace is the golden child, clever and respected, and the younger sister, Audrey, looks to be a swimming star in the making. Mia feels she has nothing to offer so throws herself into what seems like a tabloid paper’s idea of a teens life – drinking, boyfriends, make-up and general hell-raising. But things aren’t always as they seem and, as the story progresses, Mia learns that Grace isn’t perfect and Audrey, while confident in the pool, is as shy and unhappy as a 13 year-old can be. Even Mia isn’t the girl she seems to be – the brash, lippy girl who is the centre of attention at every party can still be unsure of herself. The girls are such wonderfully real characters – fighting like cat and dog and yet unhesitatingly supportive of each other when things get really tough – and I loved their parents too. They are affectionate (maybe overly so in Mia’s eyes – no teen wants to admit her parents have a sex life, ewwwww), supportive and yet know when to put their foot down. Such a nice change to have parents you can admit to liking.

I enjoyed this as a YA read which isn’t a dystopia, about some traumatic disease or part of a series about a teen in an adult role (like modelling or spying). These books have their place but this is about very real young people finding out how to live in the real world.

Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars – Miranda Emmerson

In a sort of contrast Emmerson’s Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars is set in the London in the mid 1960s – the era of the Moors Murderers, a racist backlash against recent rises in immigration and the first stirrings of a sexual revolution. While this is also a very realistically described world it isn’t the one we live in today – although it does seem to be one which we are doing our best to return to.

misstreadwayAnna Treadway is a dresser at a London theatre and is currently working with Iolanthe (Lanny) Green, an american star. When Lanny goes missing Anna, deciding that the police are not concentrating hard enough on the case, goes in search. This involves night-clubs run by London’s afro-Caribbean community, back-street abortionists and bleak coastal towns. She is helped and hindered along the way by Turkish Cypriot cafe owners, an Irish policeman and an accountant from Jamaica: but no-one is who they seem to be or, if they are, no-one believes them. Every character seems to have a secret, more than one name or difficult decisions to make about their future. We think of London of the era as being all about the Swinging 60s but the reality is much darker, more brutal and somehow colder. Maybe the ‘Swinging’ was an antidote to a real world full of serial murderers, prostitution, and unchecked racial prejudice and police brutality.

Despite this bleakness I really enjoyed this book. The characters were well-drawn and we saw far more deeply into their hidden lives than they were able to share with others. Mysteries are largely solved by the end – but enough doubts and ‘what-ifs’ were left to keep the reader thinking.

Three Daughters of Eve – Elif Shafak

Shafak is an author who has been beeping gently on my personal radar for a while now. Her bestselling 2010 novel, The Forty Rules of Love, is a regular strong seller (and seems to be a local book-group favourite) and our bookstall for her talk during the 2016 Bradford Literature festival sold out of everything we took. This very rarely happens…. It is only my old problem (#somanybookssolittletime) which had stopped me from reading anything by her until now so I was pleased to get the chance to read her latest, Three Daughters of Eve.

51uqfv9szrl-_sx321_bo1204203200_This is a novel set in modern Turkey – a country on a knife-edge, teetering between secularism and increasingly strict Islamic faith – with episodes at Oxford University shortly after 9/11 and in the Istanbul of the main character, Peri’s, childhood. The three daughters of Eve (a phrase that immediately made me think of Narnia…) could refer to the three generation of women in Peri’s family: she has always had a difficult relationship with her mother and hopes for a better one with her daughter. Which is not happening so far. Or it could be a reference to the group of young women of Muslim heritage she falls in with when studying at Oxford: Shirin, an outspoken Iranian feminist (the sinner); Mona, an Egyptian-American hijabi (the saint); and Peri, whose relationship with god is largely one of argument and indecision (the confused). The story explores Peri’s family life – with an increasingly devout and traditional mother, a father whose basic acceptance of God’s existence doesn’t keep him from a very secular lifestyle and two brothers (one who follows his mother, the other his father and who both go way beyond their parents in the extremity of their beliefs) – as well as her days at Oxford. The University sections are largely taken up by her feelings for a charismatic professor, known as Azur, who teaches a course on God.

This is largely the story of Peri’s exploration of her relationship with God. There’s also quite a lot of plot – scandals, terrorism, debates on Islam and feminism, family tragedies and personal danger – but it is Peri’s development which is at the centre. This is not, as Professor Azur says of his controversial seminars, about religion but about a personal experience. It is about learning how to be undecided and to move away from the certainty which can lead to extreme viewpoints.

So. It turns out there was a common theme to these books. In each one the characters are trying to work out what their identity is; how they fit into their world. Important lessons which some learn young, like Mia, and others, like Anna and Peri, are still discovering as adults.